Barack Obama's grandma, 86, dies of cancer before election
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By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
She was the foundation of his youth, Barack Obama's Midwest conscience and the reason Obama abruptly interrupted his run for the most important job on Earth to say his goodbyes to the maternal grandmother he called "Toot."
Yesterday, sometime after 3 a.m. Honolulu time, Madelyn Payne Dunham died of cancer in the two-story, 10th-floor apartment on Beretania Street where she raised Obama. Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was at their grandmother's side.
Dunham's death came just one day before she and the rest of the world would learn whether Obama would be elected president of the United States.
Dunham turned 86 on Oct. 26 — only two days after Obama left Hawai'i and resumed his race for the White House. She had already voted for her grandson by absentee mail ballot by the time Obama canceled his appearances and flew back home for a 22-hour visit with "Toot," the nickname he gave Dunham, which is short for the Hawaiian word for grandparent, tutu.
While his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, pursued her anthropology graduate studies in Indonesia and Africa, Obama was raised in Honolulu by his grandparents: Stanley, a gregarious and fun-loving — but struggling — furniture and insurance salesman; and Madelyn, the stern, no-nonsense banking executive who draped him in equal parts Kansas values and grandmotherly love.
During his campaign for the presidency, Obama's grandmother was the last close relative from his childhood for a man who already had suffered the losses of his mother, father and grandfather.
Yesterday, on the campaign trail in Charlotte, N.C., Obama called Dunham a "quiet hero" in his first public comments after her death.
"Some of you heard that my grandmother who helped raise me passed away early this morning," Obama said to supporters. "She has gone home. She died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side and so, there's great joy as well as tears. I'm not going to talk about it too long because it's hard to talk about. I want everybody to know, though, about her. Her name is Madelyn Dunham. She was born in Kansas in a small town in 1922, which means she lived through the Great Depression, she lived through two world wars."
Obama called Dunham "a very humble person and a very plain-spoken person."
She was like other "quiet heroes we have all across America," Obama said. "They're not famous. Their names aren't in the newspaper. But each and every day they work hard. They watch out for their families. They sacrifice for their families. ... That's what America's about. That's what we're fighting for."
A PEACEFUL DEATH
Dunham already had been slowed by osteoporosis when she slipped and fell in her apartment in early October, breaking her hip and leading to a stay at Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center. She later returned home to the Punahou Circle Apartments with other undisclosed problems that turned out to be cancer.
"It's very, very sad, because we all hoped that she would be able to sustain her strength through Election Day itself," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, (D-Hawai'i), a family friend. "She passed away confident that he would succeed. ... Maya and Barack want to assure everyone that she died peacefully knowing what the situation was and content that she had given everything to him. His strength, his calm demeanor that characterized him in these last weeks and last days — this quiet strength that come across so clearly — that comes from his grandmother, there's no question about that. It's her great legacy."
There are no immediate plans for a funeral, but it will probably be a private gathering in Hono- lulu that Obama would attend, Abercrombie said.
"That is not the main priority right now," Abercrombie said.
In a statement released by the Obama campaign yesterday, Obama and Soetoro-Ng said: "It is with great sadness that we announce that our grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, has died peacefully after a battle with cancer. She was the cornerstone of our family, and a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength and humility. She was the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances. She was proud of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and left this world with the knowledge that her impact on all of us was meaningful and enduring. Our debt to her is beyond measure.
"Our family wants to thank all of those who sent flowers, cards, well-wishes, and prayers during this difficult time," according to the statement. "It brought our grandmother and us great comfort. Our grandmother was a private woman, and we will respect her wish for a small private ceremony to be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, we ask that you make a donation to any worthy organization in search of a cure for cancer."
Soetoro-Ng said in a follow-up statement: "My grandmother made her home on these islands since 1959, and she loved the people of Hawai'i. We want to thank Tutu's friends and extended 'ohana for the outpouring of aloha over the past few weeks. We received cards, letters and gifts that helped lift her spirits, and we are very grateful for everybody's support."
The Honolulu medical examiner's office said it did not handle the case, suggesting that Dunham's death was an "attended death" monitored by a physician.
WWII AIRPLANE WORKER
Like others who died after voting by absentee mail-in ballot or at an early voting polling place before today's election, Dunham's vote will still count, said Kevin Cronin, the state's chief elections officer.
Dunham's absentee mail ballot was processed by the Honolulu clerk's office on Oct. 27, Cronin said, and will be processed today along with more than 100,000 other absentee ballots statewide.
Voting for her grandson for president of the United States represented one of the final acts of a woman who was born in Peru, Kan., on Oct. 26, 1922, worked on an aircraft assembly line in World War II and ended up as a banking pioneer on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
When she was 3, Dunham's family moved to Augusta, Kan., where she was raised as Madelyn Payne. She married Stanley Armour Dunham on May 4, 1940, attended college at the University of Washington and inspected Boeing B-29 bombers during the war.
"She was from the part of the country where a girl sets out to be a wife and a mother and ends up building airplanes for the war effort," said Alice Dewey, University of Hawai'i anthropology professor emeritus, who was Ann Dunham's graduate studies adviser and became a family friend.
Dewey yesterday described Madelyn Dunham as "a bit shy, not a chatty kind of person. But she had decided opinions on whatever we were talking about, which was often political. She would get information and have an opinion and tell you why. ... She was always very affectionate with Ann and with Barry."
After the war, Dunham attended the University of California, Berkeley, worked various jobs on the Mainland, then came to the Islands, where she joined Bank of Hawaii in 1960, which was then the state's largest financial institution in terms of assets.
She started as a mortgage administrator, became the bank's escrow manager two years later and eventually was named one of its first female vice presidents in 1970, along with Dorothy K. Yamamoto.
Dunham never graduated from college and frequently reminded the people below her that a college degree did not necessarily translate into hard work.
State Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th, (Kahala, Hawai'i Kai), worked in economics and business research for Bankoh while Dunham was rising to the position of vice president, and also lived one floor beneath Dunham and Obama in the Punahou Circle Apartments.
"Anybody who worked with her or for her for any period of time had to be impressed with her professionalism and dedication," Slom said yesterday. "She was just from the old school: Work hard, give a full day's work for a full day's pay. She inculcated that with anybody that came in contact with her. She didn't share or tell jokes or light moments. Her whole life was business.
"Nobody doubted her integrity or her honesty. She never tried to do the right things or say the right things for personal advancement. She did them because she believed in them. She was quoted as saying Stanley wears the pants. But no one who knew her would believe that. She was clearly in charge."
Slom, who plans to vote for the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket today, said of Obama's grandmother, "I hold her in the highest respect."
And her death must represent a profound loss for Obama, Slom said.
"Specifically for Barack, I don't think there's any question," Slom said. "It's very difficult to lose a mother, father, grandmother, grandfather. And she was like a mother to him. There's no question that the greatest of his influences was his grandmother."
Dewey called the loss of Dunham "just devastating for Barry."
"He has been through so many family losses," Dewey said. "But I'd like to think she's sitting on a cloud somewhere with Ann saying, 'Go, Barry, go.' It would be very hard to stop that pair from doing that."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.